Or “But they’ll never take away our autonomy!”

The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage


You will no doubt have heard a lot about the importance of autonomy in the workplace when it comes to Employee Satisfaction and Employee Motivation and it’s pretty high up on the hierarchy of human needs too.

But what about the importance of freedom?

Freedom or Autonomy?

Same thing, right?

Well, it gets a little complex depending on who you are speaking to and in what context.

Autonomy at its basest means the ability to self-rule and freedom is a little different.

When we think about freedom, we need to think about two things:

•    Freedom from…(negative freedom) or ‘The absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints’

•    Freedom to…(positive freedom) or ‘The freedom to act’

So, can you have autonomy and the presence of obstacles, barriers and constraints? We would say it is simply autonomy in a framework – oh and for this blog let’s call that framework ‘Work’

Often when we say ‘Autonomy’, we are referring to ‘Freedom to act’ and not so much are we referring to ‘Freedom from…’

I personally think that autonomy is probably not just about letting your staff wear whatever they wish to at work, to work flexibly or remotely these are simply improving the employee’s negative freedoms, reducing constraints which may in turn help develop people to think differently about their levels of control.

If you are thinking about how to give autonomy to your people, then you also need to think about how you give them the freedom be the best them they can be too!

But what is it and how does this translate into the People Experience in your world of work?

Employee Satisfaction and Motivation

We know that freedom and autonomy in the workplace has a direct impact on both the satisfaction and the motivation of your people.

Let’s look at a few areas for example:

Company Policies: Do your policies enable people to do great work, are they light touch and in place to support your people, reviewed regularly with the policy owner and the people the policy impacts?

Or, do they put up a barrier to great work, are they heavy going or ambiguous, do they suck the time out of an individual’s day to adhere to a policy?

If the former, Whoop! Sounds great but if the latter…oh no! your barrier to great work is reducing freedom, autonomy and possibly driving dissatisfaction

Responsibility: Do you give people the responsibility to deliver their work, to agree on how this might be done and enable them to manage the outcomes, both good and bad?

Or do you prescribe what, when and how they must carry out their work, maybe they need to report in to let you know they have done the work or even send the outputs to you, so you can forward them on?

Does the first example sound like something you would do? Yay!  Sounds like you get it and your people will feel more motivated by this!

Does the second example ring a bell?

Responsibility is a real driver of motivation for your people, so putting in rules that restrict peoples ability to act with responsibility or if you act in a way that reduces your peoples level of responsibility then you could be driving down motivation and satisfaction levels.

But why is this important?

Psychological wellbeing

In a recent industry survey of HR professionals carried out by The People Experience Hub and Phil Wilcox from Emotion@Work, we saw in the results what appears to be a link between people’s freedom and their levels of stress.

90% of those people who said that they did not have the freedom to do their best work said that they had felt stressed about work in the last 4 weeks. (compared to 63% of those who said they did have the freedom to do their best work)

Over 50% of these also said that work regularly kept them awake at night. (compared to 29% of people who said they did have the freedom to do their best work)

The increase in stress and sleep disruption when people have limited freedom needs more research and we will report back on this in the future.

You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free

thich nhat hanh

Measuring the experience

Designing a workplace where the culture supports autonomy and freedom for your people to do their best work impacts positively on satisfaction and motivation and could also improve employee wellbeing, so it makes real sense to strive towards this where you work.

Understanding what gets in the way of trusting people to do their roles and what stops us removing barriers or obstacles in their way will allow you to develop a climate in your organisation where autonomy, or freedom, is the default position.

Our solutions allow you to understand how you people think about the world of work you have designed for them including satisfaction, motivation, autonomy and freedom.

You can find out about our solutions here.

About the author

My name is Nick Court and I work at The People Experience Hub

Find out more about the solutions we offer at

Drop the team an email

Or hit me up on twitter @Scruffy_Nick or on LinkedIn here

We would love to hear what you think.

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